Alek strolled down a street not far from the Zoological Society. He pulled his coat closer about him as a chill wind blew through the trees. He hadn't realized English winters were so cold.
Both sides of the street were lined by fancy shops and the sidewalks were crowded with London's wealthy denizens. Carriages and taxis pulled by fabricated beasts lumbered past.
At first Alek had been rather dazed by all the differences in a Darwinist city compared to a Clanker society. Their strange animals did the work that machines would ordinarily do, and the sidewalks were almost entirely clear of smoke. Even the street lamps were lit by glowworms instead of electricity.
He paused in front of a jewelry store and peered in at the displays. Expensive rings, necklaces, and other pieces glistered in the fading sunlight. He was looking for a ring for Deryn- an engagement ring. No matter what Count Volger thought Alek knew he and Deryn fit together perfectly.
He hadn't asked her yet of course. They had only known each other half a year, though it seemed much longer. And with the small salary he earned working for the Zoological Society it would be a long time before he could afford to give her a ring.
Alek tried to remember what his mother's had looked like. He thought it had been a fairly simple design, unusual for a Clanker.
It seemed such a long time ago since he had last seen his parents. Though the pain from their deaths had lessened, he found himself still missing them quite a lot. It was late January now and nearly six months had passed since their murders.
Without Deryn his life would have been lonely and miserable. And it had been she who had convinced Dr. Barlow to offer him a job with the Society. Now both worked as the boffins assistants.
Usually they helped either in Dr. Barlow's lab, fetching and carrying for her, or with the animals at the zoo, a job that Deryn loved and Alek didn't mind, too much really.
The majority of the animals were fabricated; only a few were natural. But none were as complex as the airship the Leviathan.
Most of them hardly frightened him at all. Except for one. The boomslang hare.
Thinking about it made him shudder.
Last week he and Deryn had been taking food to some of the zoo's animals. They had left Bovril in the Society's main building gossiping with Dr. Barlow's loris. They walked the shady paths between enclosures, feeding creature after creature until they reached the last structure. Inside was a new animal; Alek had never seen it before.
"What is it?" he asked Deryn.
"I've no idea," she said frowning. " The boffin didn't mention a new arrival."
She walked toward it.
"Here, let's take a closer look."
He followed her nearer the cage.
"It certainly is cute isn't it?"
"I suppose." He eyed it warily. After all, they didn't even know what it was.
"You know," she said, mischievously, "it reminds me a bit of you."
"What do you mean?"
" Just take a look at its ears, Alek!"
"They are not that big!" he protested. She grinned, clearly amused that she'd been able to irritate him so easily. Why was everyone always saying that? Were they really that large? He put his hands up to his ears.
Suddenly an idea came to him.
Pushing his annoyance aside he said slowly, "Deryn, do you think it could be what all the boffins have been so secretive about recently?"
She looked at him, her eyes sparkling like a cat's.
" Oi, I bet you're right. That's got to be it." Then her eyebrows knit together in thought.
"But shouldn't we have been told if it was meant to be here?"
"I would think so. I suppose we shouldn't feed it until we know."
"You're probably right. Why don't you wait right here, keep an eye on it. I'll go check with Dr. Barlow."
He watched her set off at a run back toward the main building, her feed sack banging against her side. Then he turned to look at the strange animal in the cage.
It looked harmless enough he supposed. Perhaps a bit larger than a normal rabbit, but nothing else about it seemed unusual. It's brown coat looked soft and silky and its eyes blinked at him as it hopped nearer.
He reached out a hand.
"Quite a new fabrication that rabbit is," a voice with a slightly odd accent said from behind him.
"Oh?" Alek turned around. A tall man in a bowler hat stood a few meters away. He was obviously another boffin, though Alek couldn't recall seeing him before.
The man continued,"This one is perfectly harmless, but I've seen others of the breed that can be quite deadly. The rabbit's life threads have been mixed with those of a snake. It's teeth now possess venom."
"But isn't that rather dangerous?"
"Oh yes, indeed. And it made the process a great deal more complicated than usual. But I think it turned out rather well though."
The man stood with his hands clasped behind his back absolutely beaming.
"Did you help fabricate it, sir?" Alek asked.
"Well, not exactly." The man's smile weakened a little. "I was merely one of several assistants allowed in at the beginning of the process. We were only needed for a few weeks and then the more experienced boffins continued with the work. I believe the rabbit was completed quite recently."
"I see... How interesting."Alek said, though the idea of a rabbit with fangs horrified him. But then he thought of something.
"You say this particular animal isn't poisonous?"
Light glinted off the man's dark eyes as he answered. "That is correct. It is just like any other rabbit." He turned as if to leave. "You may go into see it of you wish. The door is unlocked."
"I think I shall." Alek couldn't resist the opportunity to show Deryn that he was not afraid of any godless fabrication. Even if it was only a rabbit. He could pretend that it was more dangerous than it looked. She had teased him so often about his squeamishness.
He put a hand on the latch and slowly opened the cage door. Then he stepped inside.